Most big-budget disasters at least show some semblance of their extraordinary expenditures. Whatever else you can say about Xanadu, Heaven’s Gate, and Speed Racer, you can’t say that you wonder where all that money went. The same goes for director George Stevens’s The Greatest Story Ever Told, a failure that led to his temporary withdrawal from the filmmaking industry. His next and, as it turned out, final film probably made him sorry he’d ever jumped back onto the horse. If Elizabeth Taylor’s antics helped turn Cleopatra into what to this day qualifies as one of the all-time runaway productions, then her contributions to The Only Game in Town’s bottom line italicized the writing on the wall. What was clearly conceived as a modest, one-set Broadway play about the relationship between two broken people ended up breaking the bank as 20th Century Fox footed another eight-figure nightmare.
A classic case of life imitating art, The Only Game in Town reflects the withering fortunes of its two loser lovers against a wholly fabricated background of manipulated earning power and empty promises of financial reward. Las Vegas serves as the story’s setting, but it doesn’t take much effort to reimage it as Hollywood itself, and Taylor and Warren Beatty as the same high rollers that backed the production of movies like this one. “Dice was [sic] his vice. Men hers,” read the one-sheet’s tagline. Beatty’s Joe is a barroom pianist who takes requests from soused, dehydrated old frumps all night in order to save up enough money (five large) to get himself to New York. But every time he gets within earshot of the necessary sum, he compulsively takes it to the craps tables and pisses away his luck. Taylor’s Fran is a showgirl (presumably, as the movie only gives us one or two cutaways of her swaying in costume that are haphazardly montaged into a production number that looks like it’s taking place 500 miles away). She discontentedly keeps both her nights and her days as empty as possible so that she will have nothing tying her down when her married and often absent lover Lockwood (Charles Braswell) comes to finally sweep her off her feet, but the routine has been going on for five years now, and clearly the strain has taken a toll on her dancing skills. It doesn’t take a psychologist to uncover the fact that they’re both self-destructive people who have pointedly settled in the nation’s capitol of dysfunction.
They meet cute, but Fran gets ugly in as much time as it takes to drop an oversized ice cube into a lowball glass. Joe is persistent, though, and manages to talk his way into her bedroom. From then on, it’s a game of mouse and mouse as the two protract their courtship, scurrying away from feelings through sarcasm, feigned outrage, and pizza pies. Oh, and they decide to become roommates to show how much they really don’t care about each other.
In much the same fashion, the producers of the film decided that the thing to do with this two-hander material was to film the entire thing in Paris, reconstructing sections of Las Vegas at great expense and then filming most of the movie’s scenes inside Fran’s apartment, which, as is made clear by the conspicuous amount of rear projections outside her windows, could’ve been just as easily been relocated to Topeka, Kansas. The location shooting rocketed the budget toward a then reasonably scandalous $11 million, with nary a penny of it justified by what actually went up on screen. (It didn’t exactly help that Stevens hired veteran French New Wave cinematographer Henri Decaë, who despite framing the film with a typically keen eye, also gave every frame the impression of having been done on the fly.) Taylor absorbed the lion’s share of the blame for the film’s failures; it was her who requested they film in France so she could be near Richard Burton. But the fact of the matter is that the movie’s failings are so integrated into the subtext of the movie itself, it’s failure made a greater statement about its reason for being than any ledger book ever could’ve.
For a chaste, clean-mouthed, PG-rated movie about two miserable people getting it on in Las Vegas, there sure is a lot of grit in this disc’s image presentation. The colors are boldly saturated, and the picture quality is good enough that it makes the movie’s fumbling faux-Las Vegas look even more laughably misguided. And then there are those rear projections during the houseboat interlude. It’s a bit like that Seinfeld "good lighting, bad lighting" bit. The movie’s probably never looked better in home-video release, but it’s also never looked worse. The audio comes with or without dialogue, and if the soundtrack had been done by someone other than the reliably excessive Maurice Jarre, I’d suggest fabricating a silent-movie experience. As it is, you may as well get the full insufferable effect.
Well, first off, you have to hear the alternate film commentary by the strippers from Scores, who have many a nasty thing to say about Elizabeth’s attempts at Vegas-style bumping and grinding...oh wait, that was on the Showgirls DVD. Never mind. Twilight Time, as per usual, spared every expense on the bonus features, of which there are none.
It’s going to take a whole lot more than 3,000 limited edition copies of this Blu-ray to help The Only Game in Town finally turn a profit.